Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 15

chapter
Chapter

CLICK TO ENJOY THIS WEBSITE!

ALVAR KRESH WAS ALONE. Alone in the Residence, alone in the house where Grieg had died, alone in the room where Grieg had worked. Alone except for Donald, that is. Donald had refused to leave his side since the moment Telmhock had told Kresh he was the Governor. All things considered, Kresh was glad of it. Who else might be out there, tampering with robots and wandering around with a smuggled-in blaster? No, it was good to be there with a robot he could trust. Good to have Donald standing there in a wall niche, watching over him.

But he wished Fredda were there. Fredda to give him advice, to listen, to just be there. She would have helped him find some answers. Right now all he had were questions.

What now? Alvar asked himself. What is my part in the world? Do I act as Governor, and run the planet, or Sheriff; and chase Grieg's killer? Can I do both at once? He felt as if he were a double man, split between his new office, his new duties, and his old ones. He felt he had no more desire to resign as Sheriff than he had to become Governor. He liked being Sheriff. He was good at it. And he knew that solving his predecessor's murder would have to be his last case. Maybe it was even improper for him to stay on that long. But that didn't even matter, not really. He could no more walk away from the investigation than he could refuse the office of Governor.

Kresh sat in the Governor's office, in what was now, impossibly enough, his office, in what had been Grieg's office, the dead man's office. He sat in the vaguely thronelike chair, at the dead man's black marble desk, and thought not at all of his surroundings as he read the dead man's words.

The letter from Chanto Grieg, dated a mere ten days before. Kresh had read it over a dozen times already, but that didn't matter. He needed to read it again.

To my oldest and dearest enemy, the letter began.

Grieg always did have a strange sense of humor. But in a way, that did sum it all up, Kresh thought. He and Grieg had come to respect each other, even like each other, even if they had never agreed on much of anything. Each had come to know the other was honest, and honorable.

Kresh began reading again.

To my oldest and dearest enemy

Dear Sheriff Kresh,

If you are reading this, it means that I have met a violent or unexpected end-A violent or unexpected end. A chance turn of phrase, or had he meant to present that precise meaning, consciously or otherwise?-and you have taken on my office. Not "inherited," Kresh noted. Not "assumed," or "ascended to," or "been promoted to. " No, taken on was the proper phrasing. Burdens were the things you took on. Until recently it would have been the old Designate, Shelabas Quellam, sitting where you are now, wondering what the devil to do. But things are moving toward a crisis, and I felt a stronger hand than Quellam's might well be needed at the helm.

I chose you as my new Designate because you are an honest man, and a strong man, ready to take on what comes at you. I have no doubt you do not wish to be Governor, and that is also why I chose you. My office-now, your office-is far too powerful to be given over to one who loves power. It is, rather, a place for one who wants to use power, to accomplish things. The Governor's chair demands a person who understands that it is the accomplishments of the office, and not its power, that matter.

I expect to take my time before informing you of the Designation. You can be a difficult customer, and I do not wish to discuss the matter with you when there any other major issues between us. In short, I do not want to inform you that you are my Designate in any way that might give you the chance to refuse the job. Though I do have other purposes, I write this letter now partly as a form of insurance if that moment never comes. I know that if I tell you when the decks are not clear, you might well view the Designation as some sort of threat, or bribe, and it is nothing of the kind. I chose you because you are the best qualified person I can think of to take up the challenge of the Governorship. My death in itself may well have been enough to precipitate a crisis so complex that only the steadiest hand can steer the way through. A hand such as yours.

This is a first draft. I will, from time to time, attempt to update this letter, offering what advice I may on the choices you will face, the decisions you will have to make. Just at the moment, there are two vital decisions I must make, and must make soon.

First, there is the issue of the New Law robots. I have now reached the decision that it was a mistake to allow their manufacture.

"Now he figures that out," Kresh muttered to himself.

"Beg pardon, sir?" Donald asked.

"Nothing, Donald, nothing. " He read on… mistake to allow their manufacture. Perhaps in another place, another time, with other issues less in doubt, they would have been a noble experiment, full of promise. But as things are, their mere existence makes an unstable situation worse. As you have reason to know better than I, they have become the center of a whole criminal enterprise. Less noticeably, but perhaps even more seriously, they are slowing down work at the Limbo Terraforming Station. They are only about a third as productive as a like number of Three-Law robots would be, and somehow or another seem to be at the center of most of the disputes that erupt at the station. I will be traveling to Limbo City soon, in part to see if I can smooth things over a bit.

The problem is that the New Law robots are a mistake that is not easily undone. Even with the forced drafting of robotic labor to terraforming duties on Terra Grande, there is a tremendous shortage of labor. Simply on an economic level, I cannot afford to order the New Law robots destroyed and their places taken by Three-Law robots. The New Law robots do not work as hard as Three-Law robots, but they do work.

At the same time, I cannot afford the public admission that the New Law robots were a mistake. I only dare admit as much to you because I will be safely dead if and when you read this. I don't much mind if the public thinks I am a fool-they might even be right. But you know how dangerous the situation is. If my administration, or my policies, were to become the object of public ridicule, I would not be able to continue in office.

I would be impeached and convicted the same day I ordered the New Law robots scrapped. Then poor old Quellam, my successor in such a case, would take over, and more than likely be pressured into a snap election. With no other viable candidate organized and ready, Simcor Beddle would win the election in a walk, kick the Settlers off the planet, give everyone back their personal robots-and the planet would collapse around him.

Thus, the New Law robot problem. They should not be where they are, but I dare not get rid of them. I am searching for a third way. With luck, I will find it soon, and be able to scratch this from my list of issues you will have to face.

The second issue is a much more straightforward one-with a much more complicated background. As you may know, there has been a long bidding process for the Limbo Terraforming Station's control system. The bidding process was intended to produce two final, competing bids-one Settler and one Spacer. I was to make the final choice between the two finalists. I had hoped to make a choice on purely technical grounds, but it may not be that easy. Neither bidder has a completely clean pair of hands.

The Spacer bid has been organized by Sero Phrost. Cinta Melloy of the Settler Security Service has sent me a number of reports that, coupled with my own information, suggest that Phrost is involved in a complex sort of double-dealing. I have suspected for some time that Phrost was cooperating with one of Tonya Welton's smuggling schemes. I think he is helping her bring Settler home-operation equipment-cleaning machines, cookers, that sort of thing-onto Inferno. We know the machines are coming in, and I am close to proving Phrost is part of the operation.

The idea seems to be that the Settler machines will replace robotic labor, and thus give those who own the stuff, and want more of it, and want spare parts for it, a vested interest in increased trade with the Settlers. Cinta Melloy has not told me anything about that side of things, needless to say. I have little doubt that the SSS is cooperating with Tonya Welton's policy of smuggling in Settler goods. Melloy does not say where the money comes from, but what Melloy does tell me is where the money goes. She does have convincing proof that Phrost is funneling a great deal of unreported income to the Ironheads, of all people. I as yet have no way of showing that the income from his Settler operations is the source of the money going to the Ironheads, but the conclusion seems inescapable.

If Melloy's allegations are to be believed, Phrost is buying Ironhead support with the profits of his dealings with their deadliest enemies. Phrost, it would seem, is determined to be all things to all people.

The Settler bid is represented by Tierlaw Verick. He has, to put not too fine a point on it, been using bribery and the promise of kickbacks to sell his wares, advancing his bid's way through the various stages of the bidding process. At least, Commander Devray believes as much. Bribery is a difficult charge to prove unless the bribe giver or bribe taker confesses, but Devray is convinced of the charges. I am half expecting Verick to offer me some modem version of the ancient thick envelope or bag of gold plopped down on the desk when I next meet with him. It is my impression that Devray also suspects him of being involved somewhere in the background of the rustbacking trade. I cannot be clearer than that, because Devray has not been clearer with me. He does not have any more substantial information.

But whether or not I manage to obtain final proof against either man, it scarcely matters. It is, after all, the machinery that matters. For all the questionable tactics surrounding the two bids, both appear to be technically superb systems. My choice may come down to the design philosophies behind them. Which will it be? A Three-Law robotic system that will take no chances, but, in seeking safety, will refuse to take needful risks? Or a system intended for human control, putting us once again in command of our own fate, but with human judgment-and human frailty-in ultimate control? The bidding process gives me but little faith in human nature-but it was in large part robotic nature that brought things to their current state on Inferno. And how do I choose between two corrupt bidders? Do I dare expose one, or both, of the two, or would that merely make things worse? But it would seem the alternative is accepting the most corrosive sort of dishonest behavior in the people who install the machinery meant to save this world.

What am I to do? I sincerely hope I find a solution-and soon.

With any luck at all, you will never read these words, or even know that I wrote them to you. But should you receive this letter, let me wish you the wisdom-and the courage-to make your decisions carefully, and well. Our planet has suffered far too many leadership mistakes in the past. It might well be that it cannot survive even one more.

Good luck to you, Governor Kresh.

Sincerely,

Chanto Grieg.

There were a few other words on the paper, scribbled in the left-hand margin. Decided. Annce day aft. recept. Infrnl cntrl, N. L to Val. Must update this let. CG.

Alvar Kresh tossed the letter down on the desktop and stood up. Damnation. If only he had had the information in that letter sooner, then-

– Then it would not have made the slightest difference. That was the frustrating part of it. The information and advice from a dead man did little more than muddy the waters. Grieg gave him more questions when what he needed was more answers.

Donald. He could get Donald's advice. Kresh had quite purposely not let Donald read the letter yet, so as to insure its contents did not bias the robot's thoughts. "Donald," Kresh called.

Donald's eyes glowed a brighter blue, and he turned to regard Kresh. "Yes, sir?"

"What, in your opinion, was the motive for Grieg's murder?"

"I can offer no thought on that until we have a great deal more information, as you know, sir. However, I think by this time we can begin to eliminate certain possible motives."

"Can we, by the stars? Please, tell me which ones. "

"With every moment, it is less and less likely that the murder was intended as the first stage in a coup, or in the overthrow of the Spacer regime on Inferno."

Kresh nodded. "We're starting to get things back under control. If the plotters wanted to take over, they would have followed up with a military move or the equivalent by now. All right, so there is not going to be a coup. Go on."

"Second, we can eliminate succession to the Governor's office as a motive, except in respect to Shelabas Quellam. He might well have struck in order to assume power. If the new Designate had turned out to be Sero Phrost, or Simcor Beddle, that would be tremendously suspicious. As things are, there can be no such possible motive."

"Thanks for the implied compliment, Donald, but I promise you a lot of people besides me have trouble believing I was the legitimate Designate. I haven't gone looking, but I can promise you that if I did, I'd find a half-dozen rumors going around that I forged the Designation document and then killed Grieg myself. I did find the body, after all."

"I assure you, sir, that I intended no compliment. I was, after all, right behind you as you entered Grieg's bedroom. Unless you were carrying a blaster identical to Bissal's, one that held precisely the same charge as Bissal's, unless you were capable of extracting that blaster from some concealed pocket, firing it four times with great precision into Grieg and the robots, and then reconcealing the weapon, all in the space of a few seconds, you could not have done it. I suppose it might in theory be possible for you to do all that, but even then you could not have killed Grieg."

"Why not?" Kresh asked.

"Blaster shots release a great deal of heat, and Grieg's wounds, and the shots to the three SPR robots, were all at normal temperature by the time I arrived in the room. I know you did not do it because it would be physically impossible for you to do it. As to the rumors you describe, several such have been reported via the various tipster lines and so forth. However, rumors do not a case make.

"The main point is that you did not kill Grieg, and yet you became Governor. Therefore, unless the leader of the plot was under the mistaken impression that Quellam was the current Designate, succession to the Governor's office cannot be the motive. And I do not believe in any plotters that incompetent."

"Unless the plotters knew I was the Designate, and wanted me in power."

"For what reason?" Donald asked.

"I can't imagine," Kresh said. "I admit it is rather implausible."

"Yes, sir. In any event, there are several other classes of motive that are increasingly nonviable. Personal motivations, for example. If it were a crime of passion, the preparations were remarkably elaborate. Likewise if this was the work of someone who wished to be avenged. Also, someone acting out of such personal motivation would be unlikely to recruit so many co-conspirators. Finally, an examination of Grieg's personal effects and letters reveals no hint of any jilted lover or jealous husband, or other such domestic complication. "

"So it wasn't a coup, it probably wasn't a would-be Governor, and it wasn't a husband."

"No, sir. Not if my analysis is sound. "

"Which it is. So what does that leave?" Kresh asked.

"Love, power, and wealth are the three classic motivations for premeditated crime. We have eliminated two, and have but one left."

"In other words, someone killed Chanto Grieg in hopes of financial profit," Kresh said.

"Yes, sir. I judge from your tone of voice that you had already reached such a conclusion. "

"So I had, Donald. But I feel much more comfortable in that conclusion having heard your reasoning. " Kresh sighed, and leaned back in the Governor's oversized chair. It was a hell of a note that the only suspect Sheriff Alvar Kresh had eliminated so far was Alvar Kresh himself. And not everyone was ready to believe that, either.

Money as the motive. A very old-fashioned sort of motive, on a world like Inferno where robots could produce all the wealth you wanted and money didn't have much meaning. But with the robot economy collapsing, with the terms "wealth" and "poverty" suddenly coming to have meaning again, with a money system making a comeback, money might well be the reason why. And there certainly were big profits, high stakes, in the terraforming business.

So who might have a money motive? Welton, Verick, Beddle, Phrost, some damned rustbacker-Cinta Melloy, if she were mixed up in rustbacking-hell, even the two robots might be in it for the money. Prospero needed cash to pay for rustbacking runs. Of course, from the New Law robot point of view, not being exterminated was certainly motive enough. And then there was Devray. What about him? Kresh had trusted him, after a few initial doubts. But why the devil hadn't Devray told him about the bribery investigation of Verick? Maybe Devray was just being cautious-very, very cautious. Maybe he didn't trust Kresh quite as much as he might. Or maybe Verick had finally managed to name Devray's price. Damnation. If Devray was dirty, then he might well have financial motive enough to be in on the plot. And Kresh had made him privy to every part of the investigation.

Any of them-or any combination of them-would have had the resources, and the access to the know-how, required to rig the SPR robots and send Ottley Bissal in motion.

Ottley Bissal. The real killer. The one who had pulled the trigger. It was easy to forget him in the midst of all the big-name players. But no matter how many cut-outs and layers of security there had been in the operation, Bissal would have to know something. He could answer some questions. He was the one Kresh wanted. He needed Ottley Bissal, needed the information in his head. But Kresh knew, even if he did not want to admit it, that with every day-with every hour and moment that passed-it was becoming more and more likely that Kresh would not get him.

Deputy Jantu Ferrar came out of the run-down apartment building, followed by Ranger Shah and Gerald 1342. Jantu squinted at the noonday sun. Eight hours before, the three of them had started their stakeout in the predawn darkness. They had been in the dim recesses of the building ever since, watching for the occupant of apartment 533, one Ortley Bassal, to come home.

They were already down to checking on people with names similar to Bissal's, on the off chance that he might have used a name like his own to establish an alibi. The idea made damned little sense. If Bissal were to go to all the trouble of establishing a false identity, why use a name similar to his own? And if he did set up a false identity for the purpose of being untraceable, why go to the further trouble of injecting a record of the name into the official databases? Not that the databases of Limbo's populace available to the Rangers and deputies were anything much-just a list of names and addresses, and nothing else. The SSS never did much like giving out information.

But the powers-that-be had damned little else to go on. There were no better leads presenting themselves to the Rangers or the Sheriff's Department. Maybe they could have gotten further faster if they had been coordinating with the SSS-but no one trusted them far enough for that.

In any event, this stakeout was a bust, a failure. Bassal had come home, at long last-and proved to be female, short, dark-skinned, with a full head of shoulder-length black hair. Now they were back out on the street, and the harsh daylight made Jantu squint, made her feel a bit disoriented. "Come on," she said, "let's get back to the aircar."

"What a brilliant idea," Shah growled. "I never would have thought of that."

"Give it a rest, Shah," Jantu said. "We're both tired. " Jantu did not trust Ranger Bertra Shah. For that matter, she didn't think much of Rangers as a group. On the other hand, Jantu had the distinct impression that Shah felt the same way about her, and about Sheriff's deputies.

Maybe they were both Spacer organizations, maybe they were both law enforcement services, but for all of that, the Governor's Rangers and the Sheriff's deputies had never really gotten along with each other.

The deputies saw the Rangers as little more than gardeners with guns, treehuggers more interested in soil conservation than law enforcement. They rarely had to deal with any crime more heinous than littering, or any criminal act more violent than someone picking flowers without a permit. How could they know anything about the rough-and-tumble world of the city, where the real crimes happened?

The Rangers, on the other hand, seemed to think of the deputies as a bunch of trigger-happy blowhards with exaggerated opinions of their own ability. The Rangers were very fond of pointing out that the deputies only had police powers inside Hades, and were scarcely less fond of observing that they were a purely urban force, with no training in field survival, or any sort of woodcraft. True enough, Jantu granted, she would be quite hopeless outside an urban setting. But who the hell wanted to leave the city in the first place?

Shah had made it clear more than once since she and Jantu had been teamed that she couldn't see how anyone with no knowledge of tracking could call herself a law enforcement professional.

Not that all the tracking skills in the world would do any good on this assignment. Assassins didn't leave many footprints behind on city streets.

Nor was it much fun to be doing stakeouts as undercover work. But if there was anything that Shah and Jantu agreed upon, it was the wisdom of not trusting the SSS. Besides which, it was more than a bit galling to walk the streets of a Spacer town-or what had once been a Spacer town-and be an undercover Spacer cop under Settler jurisdiction. Cops hiding from cops. It made the back of Jantu's neck itch. She had the feeling someone was watching from behind. Shah was forever glancing over her own shoulder.

On the bright side, their mutual paranoia had, somehow, made for a good working relationship. Both of them were constantly on watch for any interference from the SSS, and that, at least, gave them something they agreed on.

"All right, Gerald," Jantu asked their robot, "what's next?"

"The next search site on the list is a warehouse about two kilometers from here," Gerald 1342 replied.

"And why do we want to search it?" Shah asked. "Did Bissal's cousin work there once?"

"I do not know if any of his relatives were ever employed there," Gerald 1342 replied, "but it is on the watch list of suspected rustbacker operations centers. "

Jantu shrugged. "That almost sounds like a legitimate lead. Let's go."

The moment had come. There had never been any turning back, but now, suddenly, even the way forward seemed impossible. But forward he must go.

"I, Alvar Kresh, of clear and sound mind, hereby freely and willingly accept and undertake the office of Governor of the Planet of Hades, and do pledge most solemnly to discharge my office to the best of my ability."

He spoke the words in the Grand Hall of the Winter Residence, and many of the same faces that had been here just three days before to attend the old Governor's reception were here to witness the new one's installation.

The clumsy, legalistic words of the affirmation of office seemed to stumble off his tongue, corning awkwardly and unwillingly out into the world. He did not want this. Not at all. But what he wanted did not matter at all. There was no provision in the Infernal constitution for the Designate refusing the office. According to Telmhock, the office would therefore have to remain vacant until an election could be held.

But Kresh knew better than that. Constitutional theory was all very well, but the cold hard reality of it was that the state could not long survive if it were leaderless. Then what? A coup, a revolt, disintegration? It scarcely mattered which, for collapse would come soon after, no matter what. And then there was the stalled, hopeless investigation. What if it was still churning away in the background, days or weeks or months from now? They knew nothing much more now than they had at the moment Telmhock had dropped his bombshell two days before. There seemed to be nothing out there but dried-up leads. There was no sign of Bissal, no further hint as to who he had been working for, nothing.

Kresh was silent for a long moment after speaking the words of affirmation. He stood on the low platform and saw the sea of expectant faces. He knew he had to speak to these people here, to the people of the planet. He had a speech ready. But he needed a moment, a moment, to catch his breath. Things had moved too fast, too hard, in the last few days.

The assassination, the state funeral, the announcement of Kresh as the Designate, as the new Governor. All of it had rushed past. But murders and funerals and all that had to be pushed to one side just now. The whole planet had been through the same chaos as Kresh. What point in telling them what they already knew? Suddenly the words of his speech were meaningless, worthless. No. He would have to say something else, something more.

He looked out over the crowd. Donald was by his side, as were Justen Devray and Fredda Leving, but still he felt alone, exposed, as he had never felt before. It seemed as though every member of the press was there-along with every security robot on the planet. There was a solid wall of Ranger GRDs and Sheriffs office GPS units. Under the circumstances, no one had wanted to use SPRs, even if they were designed for the job.

Even robots were not enough-not today. Armed deputies and Rangers-and SSS agents-were everywhere. Kresh found himself more fearful of itchy trigger fingers and a shootout between the rival security services than of an assassin.

But he looked past the security, past the robots, past the press, and even past the VIPs, to the people. The people in their homes and houses, struggling to understand what had happened. Yes. They needed to hear from him, hear the right sort of words, hear words that would give them some sense of stability, some link with the past and the future.

Yes. Yes. He cleared his throat and spoke, threw his voice out into the silence. "Ladies and gentlemen-people of Inferno. Not just the Spacers, but you Settlers among us. All of you. All of us. All of us are in this together. A few thousand years ago, we would have called the affirmation of office something like the ritual of oath-taking, and the leader would have taken office by divine right, in the name of this god or that deity. In those days the oath-taker believed, sincerely and literally, that the gods struck down oath-breakers, or cast them into the pit of eternal night, or whatever.

"Rational, modern Spacer society has no such superstitions. Spacer society has squeezed all mention of gods and afterlives and supernatural justice out of its oaths and promises. There is no juice left in the words. We have nothing left but careful, perhaps somewhat pompous phrases a person has to speak before she or he takes on a job. There is something to be said for living in a rational age, but still, it seems to me we have lost something as well. And we must ask ourselves-just how could we call our age rational when a random gunman can exterminate the greatest man of the age, and then remain at large?

"None of us realized just how vital Chanto Grieg was to everything until he was gone. People loved him, or hated him-but he was the glue, the man who pulled everything else together. Now there is no center, nothing and no one to serve as the focus for everything else. Our progressives have no leaders, our conservatives no enemy. Chanto Grieg is gone, and none of his friends or enemies were prepared for a world without him. And even his enemies realize now just how great a friend they have lost. For Chanto Grieg fought fair, played by the rules-and in doing so, forced all the rest of us to do the same. He and I were opposed on many-perhaps most-of the great issues of the day. But Chanto Grieg did not worry so much about such things. He only cared if a man or woman was honest, and forthright, and willing to listen. I do not know if I can live up to that short list of qualities-but now I must try. We all must try.

"I spoke a moment ago of the old days, when oath-breakers faced eternal doom and endless torment. Today, as never before, that is the actual fate that faces me, faces all of us, in literal truth, if we do not keep faith. Chanto Grieg's greatest goal was the very rescue of the planet itself, and all the life upon it. If I fail my task, or break faith with my oath-if any of us break faith with Governor Grieg's great unfinished task-then perhaps we doom the planet, and thus are doomed ourselves. "

Kresh did not speak for a moment, but instead looked out across the sea of faces. All of them looking to him, trusting him to know the way forward, when he had not the least idea.

Well, he knew a first, risky step that needed taking. An election. Grieg had named him to the Governorship because he feared Quellam would be forced into calling an early election. And yet here Kresh was about to do that very thing.

It was all right. Grieg hadn't been afraid of Quellam calling an election. He had been afraid of Quellam losing. Kresh did not intend to lose.

"I do not want this burden," Kresh said, "but it has been given to me, and I must take it up. I accept it. But it is not yet truly mine to take, not yet truly given. Not unless and until it is given fully and freely by the people of Inferno. I therefore and hereby announce that I am calling a special election, to take place one hundred days from today."

He glanced to Devray, and Fredda, and saw the expressions on their faces. He spoke again, as much to them as to the audience. "There are many who have most urgently advised me not to take this step at this time. They have told me this is a time when stability is needed, when the hurly-burly of an election can cause nothing but further chaos and confusion and uncertainty.

"If Chanto Grieg had been killed in ordinary times, if we truly did know the way forward, I would agree. But such is not the case. Whoever your Governor is, one hundred and one days from now, that person will have to move with the greatest power and authority to save this planet. We are nearer doom than most of us can know. A caretaker in the Governor's office, an unwilling Designate thrust into power without his foreknowledge or your approval, will not have, cannot have, the political muscle required to do that which is needful. Our planet, our people, have been asleep for too long. In these days, when Inferno is waking from its long slumber to find that all is not well, the Governor must speak with the voice of the people, with the knowledge that the majority have chosen, and that all the people accept that choice.

"I will be a candidate in the election for Governor, one hundred days from now, and I intend to win. I did not seek the office of Governor, but I will not turn away from my duty, or from the trust Chanto Grieg placed in me. Therefore, I ask for your support today, and will ask for it again, one hundred days from today.

"In closing, there is one other choice I have made, one other decision I must report to you all. I have decided not to resign as Sheriff of Hades at this time. "

There was a murmur, a muttering in the audience, a whispering of disapproval. Kresh had expected that, and knew the muttering was likely to get worse. He himself was not sure it was wise for him to take so much power to himself. But did he have any other choice?

"Although I will retain the office itself, I will hand over the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff's office to my subordinates effective immediately. I will not attempt to hold all the reins in my hand. But there is one rein that I cannot yet drop, one duty as Sheriff that I must complete. I will not resign the office of Sheriff until one last case is solved and resolved. I will resign when I have brought the killers of Chanto Grieg to justice. "

And at that, there was thunderous applause, from all sides. That everyone approved of. Everyone shouted and cheered at that pronouncement. But Kresh was not convinced, even as he accepted the cheers of the crowd.

He looked around the Grand Hall. Cinta Melloy. Simcor Beddle. Tonya Welton. They were all here. Or maybe someone else. Sero Phrost, the wheeler-dealer. Kresh glanced down at his side, to Donald. Maybe his favorite suspects, Caliban and Prospero, had done it after all. Or maybe even foolish old Shelabas Quellam. Or someone not here, someone watching on a televisor screen somewhere. But there was that one person. Someone applauding Kresh's promise longer and harder than anyone else. Someone whose applause was not at all sincere. Someone who was enjoying all this. The someone who was behind all this.

Sero Phrost strode into Beddle's house as if he owned the place-an idea that Beddle found more than a little disturbing. " Ah, Beddle, good to see you, " Phrost said, stepping forward to take his hand and leading him toward his own parlor. "Rather remarkable news today, don't you think?" he asked as they came to the parlor door, and the door robot opened the way for them.

Simcor found himself guided into a chair and looking up at Phrost pacing back and forth excitedly in front of him. "Yes," he said, "remarkable news. " There was something wild and excited about Phrost. It was as if all the man's calculation and caution had been swept away, revealing quite a different sort of person underneath.

"Why, man, why aren't you walking on air?" Phrost demanded, looking down at Beddle. "Kresh has all but handed you the Governorship. A hundred days from tomorrow, we'll all be back down at the Residence watching you make the affirmation of office. Or will you do it up in Hades instead? This island is a bit tiresome after a while, after all. "

"Sero, what are you doing here?" Beddle asked. "We should not be seen together. You know that as well as I do."

"Ah, yes, " Phrost said, dropping himself down into Beddle's favorite chair, and taking up a vaguely regal sort of pose, his forearms resting on the arms of the chair. " I am a moderate businessman with known dealings with the Settlers, and you are the right-wing extremist who shouts 'death to the Settlers' anytime there's a camera running. No one must know of our-our what? Arrangement? Alliance? Whatever you want to call it. No one can know about it, or we are both in a great deal of trouble. That's the way it goes, isn't it?

"Except it doesn't go that way any more. Not with Grieg out of the way. Kresh as much as called himself a caretaker. Who else is there? Shelabas Quellam? No, there is no viable alternative to yourself. The Governorship is yours."

"But even so, you might have been seen," Beddle said, starting to feel rather annoyed. How dare the man barge in here like this? "There could still be trouble. "

"Oh, don't worry about it," Phrost said. "Every policeman on the planet is too busy crawling allover the Residence looking for clues. I made sure I wasn't tracked or observed. Besides, I wanted to come in to see you in daylight, in your home. It helps to illustrate my point."

Beddle stood up and frowned down at Phrost. " And what, exactly, is your point?" he demanded.

Phrost lost his smile, and rose to his full height, until he towered over Beddle. "Just this," he said. "With Grieg gone, I no longer need to be careful. No one can touch me now. But you-you are more vulnerable than ever. You are the Ironhead leader who has been accepting Settler money. "

"Settler money!"

"All very easy to trace," Phrost said. "From their pockets to mine and into yours. I have all the proof anyone could ever want that you have been financing your operation with the enemy's money. And no one will ever believe you didn't know about it. Not in a million years. r m just a businessman. I buy and sell without much worry about politics. No one will much care where my cash comes from, or where I send it. But you. It will mean your political death-and maybe your literal death as well-if it came out that Simcor Beddle of the Ironheads was on the Settler payroll. " Phrost thought for a moment and his face turned hard. "Yes, it might well be literal death. Now we have the precedent for it in Inferno's political life. Someone might well be inspired by recent events. "

"What-what are you saying?" Beddle asked. Suddenly his skin felt very cold.

"I am saying that the Governorship is yours for the taking. You own the Governor's office. " The smile came back to his face, but there was nothing friendly about it now. " As for myself," he said, "it would seem that I own you."

READ MORE >>

You can use arrow keyboard to go to pervious/next chapter. The WASD keys also have the same function as arrow keys.